writers on dancing


A well-guarded daughter

"La Fille mal gardée"
Royal Ballet
Covent Garden Opera House
January 19 - April 2 2005

by John Percival
copyright © 2005 by John Percival

It's not silly for me to think that I would have liked Jean Dauberval if I could have met him. The man who invented such a wonderful dance story as "La Fille mal gardée" simply had to be a living treasure: it's the happiest and sunniest of ballets, romantic yet realistic, both touching and amusing. I am eternally grateful to Ivo Cramer for giving us, through his reconstruction for Ballet de Nantes a few years back, some idea of what the original production (Bordeaux, 1789) must have looked and sounded like. And—while digressing from Frederick Ashton's "Fille" before I even get to it—let me record my lively, lovely first-ever Lise (extracts only, I'm afraid), Renée Jeanmaire in the 1940s, long before she became Zizi. Let's praise also the intelligent care of Heinz Spoerli's treatment (for the Paris Opera, then developed for his own company) which took account of the ballet' s origins in the French Revolution. There was another Paris version, by Joseph Lazzini, which became boring because it crammed in so many extra dances that the action got lost. Among many journeys I have made to see "Fille", the most extraordinary was a one-day trip to Yugoslavia for a staging by Alessandra Balashova in which she, having begun her career as Lise at the Moscow Bolshoi, came out of retirement to play Widow Simone. Balashova's earlier production for the Monte Carlo and Cuevas companies, and Bronislava Nijinska's for American Ballet Theatre, were both presumably adapted from memories of the version by Petipa and Ivanov first given in 1885, and used the more rumpty-tumpty score written by Peter Ludwig Hertel for Paul Taglioni in Berlin, 1864. I remember both these versions for some good dancing rather than for the music or choreography.

One way and another, Dauberval's masterwork was never long absent from the stage in different adaptations all over the world, and from all accounts it seems likely that more than simply his attractive love story and lively characters have survived. Dancers and producers have a habit of preserving and repeating successful incidents and movements, so maybe something of what Jean Dauberval invented in 1789 was well preserved rather than "mal gardée" over the years. But what is certain is that Frederick Ashton's fresh choreography and John Lanchbery's musical adaptation gave it new life 45 years ago and have become, for many of us, the definitive version, enjoyed worldwide ever since.

I sat in the front row of the Covent Garden gallery for its first night on 28 January 1960 and remember how dazzled we were by the dancing of Nadia Nerina and David Blair in the leads—the Royal Ballet's two best virtuosos at that time, both pushed to the limits of their bravura by the choreographer. How will anyone else be able to get through it, Ashton was asked, and I believe he murmured something hopeful about "some of the young dancers". Well, since then I must have seen far more than a hundred of these young dancers tackle those roles with diverse companies in three continents, and although success has varied, standards have been pretty good on the whole—perhaps partly because Ashton set them such a challenge. In the Royal Ballet's latest revival, part of the Ashton 100 celebration, tiny, smiling Marianella Nunez danced Lise for the first time to open the run. She gives the swift, intricate footwork as gorgeously as I have ever seen it: such neat pointes, such beautifully phrased sequences, such light jumps too. Nunez is an excellent match, too, for Carlos Acosta's whizzing solos and his cheerful eagerness as Colas. Amazing pirouettes, strong extensions—and the fact that even he doesn't actually go beyond what Blair used to show says a lot for the role's originator. Of course, there is far more than technique to these roles, and this couple brought out the fun and the affection too. Please remember that Ashton (and Dauberval before him) didn't show them only as a well-behaved virtuous couple: the happy ending comes about because they are locked up together in the bedroom where she has to change her frock. And since doors traditionally play almost as large a part in the action as pink ribbons do, I must mention the door that wouldn't open for Nunez's first exit. The charming way she coped with this somehow symbolised the character's blithe response to every problem. One complaint, about the production not the cast: they do the romantic last duet so beautifully and so feelingly that we want to see it clearly, and the response of the other performers which Ashton built into his effect. Some nitwit has decided to sabotage this by dimming the stage lights and putting spots on the leading couple—ludicrous. Can't they see this is not a ballet for spotlights?

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, later in the week, have an enthusiastic following but for me they were definitely a second cast in quality as well as sequence: not bad dancing but not brilliant either, and although Cojocaru put much emphasis on her acting, the roles didn't fully awaken. Alastair Marriott, playing Widow Simone with them, caught much of a role the company finds difficulty in casting lately, but Giacomo Ciriaci was too crazy and his solos too fragmented as silly Alain, while Christopher Saunders proved negligible as Alain's father, Thomas. Those last-mentioned roles were done better in the other cast by Jonathan Howells and David Drew respectively. The first-night Widow, contrariwise, was a sorry disappointment: William Tuckett makes her inappropriately cantankerous, pulls too many funny faces and altogether seems too self-conscious. Ashton and the first Widow, Stanley Holden, made her a truly kind-hearted, affectionate mother even when Lise's naughtiness and anxiety about her future caused moments of remonstration. Tuckett's well-timed tapping in the clog dance is one redeeming feature, but he doesn't bring off the slides.

The present revival makes much of the joyful English folk dances which Ashton used as a prominent feature of the ballet. All praise for the way the supporting ensembles carried these off, and their many other assignments from the jocular opening dance for cockerel and hens, through the lively entries for Lise's eight pretty friends to the exhilarating group athletics of the men in Act 2. Dancing so many Ashton ballets in a row seems to be bringing on the corps de ballet in a manner that recent Royal Ballet repertoire failed to do.

All photos by Bill Cooper.

Volume 3, No. 4
January 24, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by John Percival


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last updated on January17, 2005